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A Game of Perfection

by Elisabeth Vonarburg. Translated by Howard Scott and Elisabeth Vonarburg
360 pages,
ISBN: 1894063325


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Review of A Game of Perfection
by Antony Di Nardo

This fascinating book transports the reader to a planet that resembles our own, yet also shimmers with the unusual, and hovers over the dream side of the human imagination. This is a world where the new year equinox is preceded by a tide of such monumental force that in a matter of minutes it changes the geography of an entire continent. The tide rises a thousand metres almost instantaneously and swallows a seacoast and a way of life. It is a tide that is celebrated as much as it is feared. The sea is barely navigable and sentient in its own way¨a sea that takes lives and thereby ensures, as the Ancients believed, immortality. "The sea sublimed their flesh," as +lisabeth Vonarburg so aptly puts it.
In this world the politics resemble that of 21st-century Earth. At first, Earth is in charge of governing its colony and abetting its corporate puppets, but like on Earth, with its history of fallouts from imperialist politics, this colonial outpost grows more like a garrison with all of its attendant flaws. The most fascinating element of the novel are the stories of the few "sensitives" who live on this world. These provide insights not only into life with telepathy, but also into their "game of perfection" as they use their hidden powers to influece the politics of their world.
Telepathy is at the centre of this novel and Vonarburg explores it from both a social and political angle. This is the second volume in a series that began with Dreams of the Sea, in which Vonarburg introduces the Ancients, humanoid clairvoyants who once occupied the planet Tyranadl, re-named "Virginia" by Earth colonists. In A Game of Perfection we meet the next generation of Terrans and a group of mutants who have powers similar to those of the Ancients. They are brought together by old, wise Simon; through his telepathic vision we get to know Virginia. Simon's dreams connect him with his father, the Ancients, and other telepaths. His dreams also predict his "death" and his subsequent resurrection, when he will seek out younger sensitives and acculturate them to a world not yet ready for their powers.
Virginia is more Earth-like than one would expect in a galaxy light years away¨more bucolic, with cows and farmhouses on the horizon, than your standard sci-fi fare with its hi-tech, platinum-plated planets. Vonarburg's world may be similar to ours in topography and agriculture, but there are many contrasts thanks to the sensitives, who drive the political intrigue in this story, assuming control of an "IndTpendantiste" government, and struggling with identities they are reluctant to reveal to others.
One challenge in writing science fiction is to create a credible alternate world. To earn that credibility, that world must be endowed not only with a landscape, but also with an absorbing history, culture, and the casualties of any evolutionary or social-political upheaval. The world must also have its own language, and words that convey the unique psychic reality of its people. The award-winning Vonarburg, who lives in Quebec and writes in French, has found the right words. An obviously gifted writer, she can evoke the passage of time, memory, and an over-arching sentience side by side with vivid images of worlds both lush and deserted. Vonarburg's writing draws the reader into her cities, marred by inter-planetary intrigue, and into underground ruins that confirm the inexplicable powers of the Ancients. She creates the unreal, but living landscape that is story-telling.
The African-American sci-fi writer Octavia Butler, who passed away this year, wrote, "When I say these things in my novels, sure I make up the aliens and all that, but I don't make up the essential human character." Vonarburg could have said the same about herself. Simon, her protagonist, struggles with his powers and with his mission to gather and unite the sensitives. He is driven as much by a desire to survive as by the imperative to teach and protect a new generation of psychics. He's also forced to deal with the personal dilemma of living openly as a sensitive or hiding his abilities from the Terran "normals".
Towards the end of the book, when he reflects on his life with those normals, Simon asks, "Is that how it is then, living in the West: knowing where not to look?" It makes one wonder where this story is really taking place. ˛
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